By: Jaclyn Zembrodt Taylor, Law Clerk for Melissa Doss Law
If you are involved in a legal custody issue regarding your child or any child in your life, it may seem strange that a judge will make the final determination that binds you to a court order for several weeks, months, or even years to come. However, it is important to keep in mind that the single, unfamiliar judge that is making such a personal determination has guidelines to follow. The Kentucky legislature has considered the perception that arises from a parent or potential custodian’s point of view when a single, unfamiliar judge is deciding issues such as how often you get to see your child or which school they will go to. KRS § 403.270 outlines the standard that family court judges within the Commonwealth must adhere to when making these extremely intimate and unique decisions. That standard contemplates your child’s best interest first and foremost.
The “best interest” standard
KRS § 403.270(2) explicitly prioritizes the consideration of the best interest of the child or children involved in the matter. This provision states that “[t]he court shall determine custody in accordance with the best interest of the child.” The provision also prioritizes accommodations for the child spending the maximum amount of time he or she is able with both fit parents. Until proven otherwise both parents are presumed to be fit and able to exercise shared parenting of the child or children involved.
The “best interest” standard may seem very broad and subjective. Differing opinions between parents about what is in the best interest of the child or children involved is most likely the basis for the custody hearing in the first place. While the standard is in fact very subjective and allows the judge to exercise their discretion in deciding custody issues, there is a non-exhaustive list of factors for the family court judge to rely on. The statute allows for the court to consider “all relevant factors” in determining a child’s best interest. However, there are several factors included within the statutory language to give judges a starting point to their determination. Some of these factors include: the wishes of the child’s parent, parents, or custodian; the wishes of the child involved (given they are old enough); the child’s relationship with his or parent, siblings, or any other person who significantly impact their best interest; the motivation of the adults involved in the matter; the child’s closeness to his or her home, school, and community after the decision; the health of all individuals involved (mental and physical); the circumstances that led to the custody litigation; the likelihood that the individual would allow the child to frequently and meaningfully visit the other parent or custodian involved; and several others. At the end of the day, the family court judge has the ability to consider any and all relevant factors. This allows the judge to take into account unique situations and circumstances in each individual case. The court is not blind to the intrusive nature of judicial custody determinations and understands that the best case scenario for one family may be the worst case scenario for another.
Custody matters involve individuals coming into the courtroom with high emotions. Any court decision deeply affects their daily life and familial relationships. At the end of the day, the heart of the matter is the child. It only makes sense to put the best interests of the child above all else when deciding which stepping stones need to be placed to lead that child along the best path with the hopes of a bright future.